Imagine living in a world where you are not in control of your ownthoughts. Imagine living in a world in which all the great thinkers of thepast have been blurred from existence. Imagine living in a world where lifeno longer involves beauty, but instead a controlled system that thegovernment is capable of manipulating. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451,such a world is brought to the awareness of the reader through adescription of the impacts of censorship and forced conformity on peopleliving in a futuristic society.
In this society, all works of literaturehave become a symbol of unnecessary controversy and are outlawed.Individuality and thought is outlawed. The human mind is outlawed. All thatis left is a senseless society, unaware of their path to self-destruction,knowing only what the government wants them to know. By telling a tale of aworld parallel to our own, Bradbury warns us of a future we are on a pathto – a future of mind manipulation, misused technology, ignorance, andhatred. He challenges the reader to remain open-minded by promotingindividualism, the appreciation of literature, the defiance of censorshipand conformity, and most importantly, change.Bradbury’s inspiration to convey the themes involved in the novelresulted mainly from the social situation of the time. First of all, thenovel was written shortly after World War II and increasing numbers ofauthors began writing about serious topics.
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Also, the invention of the atombomb had aroused the Cold War and the use of technology as a form ofdestruction. Seeing technology as a potential threat to the well-being ofmankind, Bradbury uses Fahrenheit 451 to state his distrust for it in thenovel, which explains why the devices are depicted as “chilling, impersonalgadgets of mechanized anti-culture,” (Mogen 141). Also, as the televisionwas becoming the main form of communication in the 50’s, Bradbury believedthat it was “reducing society to very mediocre tastes”.
As a defenseagainst the degradation of literature (as well as peoples’ minds), Bradburyintended to teach us of the importance of books by showing us the miseryinvolved in a world that lacks them. Another social consequence leading tothe writing of Fahrenheit 451 was that, at the time, the country was goingthrough what was called the era of McCarthyism. During this time, manyAmericans were accused of attempting to undermine the United Statesgovernment (Touponce 124). It was a time of book-burning and close panic,which left Bradbury in disbelief that “we would go all out and destroyourselves in this fashion” (Moore 103). The writing of this novel was alsoan opportunity for Bradbury to speak out against the censorship of writtenliterature that was taking place by showing the consequences of it.Bradbury believed that the censorship of books destroyed important ideas,knowledge, and opinions and restricted the world from learning about theproblems of their culture. His writing came to show that without suchknowledge, society could become very passive, which would make itvulnerable to the control and mind manipulating techniques of thegovernment. Ironically enough, this book itself was subject to censorshipon its initial release.
The political, social, and military tensions of the50’s lent to Bradbury’s own tensions, calling him forth to alert the peopleof their own self-destructive behaviors.The setting in which the story takes place has a significant effecton the theme expressed in the novel. The most notable aspect of the settingis the time at which it is set. The time that Bradbury is trying toillustrate is never simply stated, but rather implied and described throughthe lives of the characters and the technology available to them. Theexistence of a “four-walled television” (Bradbury 20) and high-speed jet-propelled “beetle” cars (Bradbury 9) inform us that this story takes placesometime in the distant future, keeping in mind this novel was written inthe 1950’s.
The time that the story takes place in is very closelyassociated with the place of its occurrence. Yet it is not so much a matterof a specific location, but rather the “world” that it takes place in – aworld brought about by the ignorance of the people that reside in it. Inappearance, this “world” seems almost identical to ours, except the onlydifference occurs in the minds of the people of this world. This closeresemblance of these two worlds provides a way for Bradbury to implicatethat our future can be like that of the story’s society if we are notcareful.
As critic Tom Bradford put it, “…elements of the real world mustbe among the constituent ingredients” (69). He tempts the reader lookbeyond the science fiction aspects of the novel and realize that this storyis a reflection of our future, as it may become.
Perhaps the most effective of Bradbury’s methods in the portrayal ofhis theme is symbolism. Throughout the story, almost every object andsituation seems to serve a purpose in the representation of Bradbury’sdystopian society and its change from it . The most symbolic of suchobjects is fire. Bradbury’s use of fire throughout the story is, likeMontag’s character, very dynamic. All through the story, the meaning,emotional reaction to, and use of fire is changed, until its final use inthe “rebirth” of society. Using fire, “Bradbury frames the dominant themesof degradation, metamorphosis, and rebirth.
” Most of this change is shownthrough the character of Montag, who starts as a fireman. But unliketoday’s firemen, Montag burns books and sees fire as the only solution toproblems until he is later “enlightened” and escapes the norms of society.At the start of the novel, fire seems to be directly associated with theimage of destruction. The description of pages being consumed and blackenedby flames in the opening of the book serves to place a predisposed image offire as evil and destructive. The sole use of fire to annihilate theknowledge and opinions associated with books shows that its only intent isto destroy. It destroys books, it destroys homes, it destroys lives, itdestroys Captain Beatty, it destroys Montag’s house, and in the end, itdestroys the city from which Montag barely escapes. Fire’s representationin Bradbury’s dystopian society is censorship.
Since, in Fahrenheit 451,books are burned to keep any controversial information from reaching theminds of the passive citizens, it becomes evident that fire is ultimatelythe censoring force. The link that Bradbury makes between the initialrepresentation and description of fire shows that his message is thatcensorship is destructive. But fire’s purpose seems to take a turning pointin the novel after Montag’s “awakening” realization about the need toexpress his thoughts among a society of conformists. Fire is then seen as asymbol of rebirth and purification. Even Beatty himself, captain of thefiremen, believes that, “fire is bright, and fire is clean” (Bradbury 54),showing the uniquely cleansing property of flames.
Fire allows something tobe wiped-out completely and changed, allowing a fresh new start – the startof a new society. When Montag sets his own house ablaze, he undergoes anuncommon emotional experience, in which he views the fire as a new startingpoint, a change in his life. Even the opening of the book claims, “It was apleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed”(Bradbury 3). Also, Bradbury’s frequent reference to the Phoenix, as onBeatty’s helmet and car, as well as its reference by Granger at the end ofthe book, serves as a metaphor to this rebirth. The Phoenix was a mythicalbird of ancient Egypt that, after its five hundred-year existence, consumesitself in flames and is reborn from its own ashes (Sisario 105). Theresurrection of the Phoenix signifies the cyclical nature of human life andcivilization. Beatty is burned to death, and his death by fire symbolicallyillustrates the rebirth that is associated with his Phoenix sign.
At theend of the book, one of the book-saving outlaws, Granger, refers to thePhoenix and claims that:The Phoenix must have been the first cousin to Man. But every timehe burnt himself up he sprang out of his ashes, he got himself born allover again. And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over,but we’ve got one damn thing that the Phoenix never had. We know all thedamn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years and..
. someday we’ll stopmaking the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. We pickup a few more people that remember every generation (Bradbury 163).This significant quote serves to inform us that the only way to avoid therepetition of history is to learn about the past and the problems of thepast.
Through Granger, Bradbury expresses the hope that mankind might usehis intellect and knowledge of his own intellectual and physicaldestruction and keep from going through the endless cycles ofdisintegration and rebirth (Sisario 105). At the end of the book, the finalpositive use of fire is finally seen. A scene of men sitting around acampfire, a fire that provides warmth and security, and reading books isdescribed, altering the earlier perception of fire as destructive. Thisclearly shows Bradbury’s intent to depict the dual sides of fire. Even thetitle of the first part of the book is: “The Hearth and the Salamander.”The hearth represents the warmth and comfort provided by fire.
In Greekmythology, the salamander was a creature that could endure flames withoutburning (Wildmann 2). Regarding the fact that the symbol on the shouldersof the firemen was that of a salamander, this creature was intended torepresent the destruction of fire and man’s self-destructive actions. EvenFaber, and ex-English professor who, despite his cowardice, also valuesbooks, states that, “The salamander has devoured its own tail” (Bradbury90). This statement implies that through their destructive behaviors, thefiremen have destroyed themselves. This shows the reader that if wecontinue to censor works of literature and suppress the thoughts of ourgreat authors, we will end up doing more damage to ourselves than avoidingit.
Another use of symbolism occurs with the portrayal of water as acleansing, purifying object. Bradbury creates this image by illustratingthe use of water in cleansing Montag’s soul as he makes a fresh start. Thefirst instance where water is used to show the renewal of Montag’s soul iswhen he first meets Clarisse McClellan, his open-minded seventeen-year-oldneighbor who does not fit the status quo of the rest of society. Clarisseteaches Montag of the simple beauties of life and shows him how to valuehis existence. She is what causes the turning point in his life byrevealing to Montag that he is unhappy, leading him to his rebirth. WhenMontag asks her why she likes to “taste the rain” (Bradbury 17), she askshim to try it and he states that he does not think he would like it. Yet,later he tries it for himself and discovers that, in actuality, he is verypleased by its taste. This is the first step he experiences in the start ofhis new life.
This situation is analogous to his reading of books, since heassumes that he would not find any value in them, yet once he tries readingone, he is actually “enlightened” by its contents. Another instance inwhich water is used to purify is when Montag is on the run from thegovernment and he stops to “wash his hands and face and towel himself dry”(Bradbury 125) in an attempt to cleanse himself of all evils and absolvehimself of all that he gone through. Bradbury also uses the concept ofwater as a means of renewing when Montag is leaving from Faber’s home andhe asks Faber to turn on the sprinklers to eliminate the scent andsuspicion of Montag’s presence (Colmer 109). Montag “carries a few drops ofthis rain with him on his face” (Bradbury 136). The significance of this isthat it proves to the reader that Montag has changed to a wiser man, and heplans to carry this newfound knowledge with him and use it in his new life.
In addition, when Montag is escaping the helicopters and the mechanicalhound, a “criminal”-hunting robot, the river becomes his sanctuary until heknows it is safe on land. Montag finally immerses himself in the water helonged for. “There was only the cold river and Montag floating in a suddenpeacefulness, away from the city and the lights and the chase, away fromeverything” (Bradbury 140). Montag feels a sense of peacefulness and purityupon contact with the water, which provides him a way to escape from theharsh reality of the city. Bradbury’s use of water as a means of purity, inthis case, closely resembles the Christian faith’s use of Baptisms, used tocleanse the body and the soul of all evils.
Montag’s contact with water,too, is ridding him of the evils of his “former” life.Another effective form of symbolism that Bradbury puts to use toproject his intended theme is the use of color and light in hisdescriptions. His use of light and dark throughout the book also serves asa form of characterization, since it helps describe the personality of thecharacters. At the beginning of the book, Montag is perceived as asinister, cold-hearted man through his association with the color black.His “burnt-corked” (Bradbury, 4) appearance and his black eyes and hairsignify his representation of burning and fire. Also, all of the otherfiremen are similar in appearance, with dark faces, soot-covered skin, andblack uniforms. In addition, their station is described to be a dull anddreary environment with its “dim lighting” and “dark corners” (Bradbury,26). Even the names of two of the firemen, Stoneman and Black, reveal theirdark and cold hearts.
Also, the city is “dark and silent, lit by softlyilluminating lights” (Bradbury, 6). In this case, darkness is meant torepresent the lack of life and the oppressive nature of a society thatburns books (Sisario 106). Also, the gloomy appearance of Montag and hiswife, Mildred’s, bedroom demonstrates the lack of love between couples thathas occurred. Bradbury believes that the absence of thought-provokingmaterial and the reliance on technology, such as the “TV parlor,” has madea void between couples and has made marriages more like coexistences. Bydescribing such a void, Bradbury shows us a consequence of the degradationof literature on our future. Apart from the perceptions of darkness,Bradbury also uses the color white to represent enlightenment, knowledge,and freedom. The character of Clarisse, whose beauty immediately appeals toMontag, uses such a technique. She is described as having a “slender andmilk-white face” and wearing “a white dress that whispered” (Bradbury 5).
Her bright and innocent appearance is effective in portraying her as freeand happy. It almost makes her seem like an angel that has arrived brieflyto Montag to enlighten him. Another character that has a similar effect onthe reader is the wise, retired professor known as Faber. His appearance,like Clarisse, is centered on the concept of whiteness. Montag notices that”Faber and the plaster walls inside were much the same. There was whitein the sides of his mouth and his cheeks, and his hair was white, and hiseyes had faded, with white in the vague blueness there” (Bradbury 71). Inthis case, Faber’s whiteness in appearance represents his enlightenedknowledge and wisdom. Bradbury uses such perceptual concepts, like dark andlight, to portray different aspects of the personalities of each character,while displaying the notion that the free and knowledgeable beings arehappy among such a dark, oppressive society.
Symbolism is also existent in the “Mechanical Hound,” an eight-leggedmechanized robot used by the government to hunt down and kill suspectedcriminals. The Hound’s actions, and even its shape, are reflections of thesociety that Bradbury had predicted to come. “The Mechanical Hound sleptbut did not sleep, lived but did not live” (Bradbury 24).
Like the Hound,society was alive and yet dead at the same time, drudging through lifemindlessly. This society continues on without thought, without anyemotions, without any real reason. It just functions however the governmentwants it to by feeding its people nonsense information through thetelevision and “seashell thimble,” a small radio earpiece. They continuethrough life, all believing the same thing, becoming brainwashed by thegovernment, conforming to any ideas set by it.
The Mechanical Houndoperates in the same way: it does not think; it just functions. It doesfeel emotions; it just attacks. Even Beatty claims that, “It just’functions’. It has a trajectory we decide on for it. It follows through.
It targets itself, homes itself, and cuts off…. It does not thinkanything we don’t want it to think” (Bradbury 20).
Like the Hound, societywas “programmed” to not think, wonder or ever ask why. It was just acontrolled system, incapable of ever thinking differently. They were alljust “products of an empty society”. The perversion of Montag’s society wasalso eminent in the shape of the Mechanical Hound.
As the word ‘Hound’suggests, the robot should resemble a dog in appearance. Yet, a hound with”eight spidery legs,” a metal body and electric eyes is far from the normalstructure of a canine. Like the Hound, society was far from normal.
Thesociety was strange, backward, and completely abnormal. There was nocompassion for life, as revealed through Mildred’s solution to stress:”It’s fun out in the country. You hit rabbits. You sometimes hit dogs. Gotake the beetle” (Bradbury 64). Anyhow, the citizens perceive thisseemingly abnormal behavior as normal, because they have been conditionedand have conformed to such unmoral actions.
Schools in this society nolonger teach an education, but instead nonsense that “programs” theconforming children for their future of false happiness. Montag’s societyhasn’t the time, nor the interest to better themselves with knowledge.Instead they destroy it. Another aspect of The Mechanical Hound that issymbolic is its use by the firemen, representing the misuse of technologythat Bradbury is predicting in the future.
Again, referring to its title asa ‘Hound’ gives it the animalistic characteristics of a dog. In oursociety, the dog is frequently referred to as “man’s best friend.” Yet, inthis twisted society, everything has been turned against him, even his ownbest friend.
Today, especially in the 50’s, technology may have seemed likeman’s aide in making life easier, and therefore his friend. But Bradburybelieves that one day such technology will be intended for things otherthan its initial purpose, making technology, along with our reliance on it,a potential threat to mankind. One critic of the novel claimed that,”Bradbury is not interested in the precise mechanisms of the rocket, butin the mentality and the morals of fallible beings who make and userockets” (Kirk, 68). Bradbury’s main focus of the novel is not of thetechnology of the future society, but rather the minds of the unmoral andevil-intended government that put it to use in the city of ignorant minds.
Through various writing techniques, Ray Bradbury is successful inportraying a futuristic society in which the written word has become a signof controversy and is forbidden. In such a society, the people areprevented from thinking for themselves and instead conform to the ideas andopinions of the government. Their whole life is “programmed” by fear andthe menaces of technology to the point where their existence is asenseless, government-manipulated system.
But, like all systems do, thisone must “crash” some time. In Bradbury’s society, all communication to thedisturbing outside world had been cut off in order to keep the citizensfrom worrying. Yet, the society had been living in blind happiness,oblivious to the war raging outside their “world” and the bomb that finallydestroyed them. The horrific society that Bradbury had depicted had beenintended to be parallel to our own in order to provide us with a warning.He is warning us of the consequences of censorship and conformity.
He iswarning us of a future of ignorance. He is warning us of a path we may takeif we are not careful. He incites us to remain open-minded and to take onour own quests for self-improvement through knowledge. He teaches us tovalue books in order to gain that knowledge.
He pushes us to fight thecensorship that suppresses great minds and hides this knowledge, of whichwithout, we may never know the problems of our culture. Our future dependsentirely upon the truth and intellectual freedom, and if we do not risefrom the ashes of our present like the Phoenix, we may fall victim to self-destruction and ultimately put an end to ourselves, much like Bradbury’sfictional society.